Your dog is not welcome to go traipsing through the parlors of America’s
spectacular Gilded Age mansions of course but the thing about America’s castles is that they are usually found in the middle of extensive estates. And when the houses are opened to the public, so are the grounds. And often your dog is allowed to roam outside of those private palaces. So pack your dog’s overnight bag to be a welcome house guest...
Biltmore House (North Carolina)
Let’s start this tour with America’s biggest house, the 250-room French
Renaissance-style Biltmore House, designed by Richard Morris Hunt for George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. When Cornelius died in 1877 he was the wealthiest man in America and the richest man ever to die. The Biltmore House would open in 1895 amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
Outside the exuberant castle is an 8,000-acre estate that includes a forest, a
farm, a winery and gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Your dog is permitted to explore just about everywhere that isn’t a building. The garden paths wind gently down a sloping mountainside from the mansion to the Boat House and Bass Pond, passing through formal gardens, natural woodlands and imaginative meadow plantings. Covering these serpentine trails is likely to whet any dog’s hiking appetite but if not you can take off on a paved bike path or bridle trail that wind around the grounds. You can hike for days with your dog at Biltmore and never realize you are in the backyard of America’s largest house.
Gillette Castle (Connecticut)
In 1913, when he was 60 years old and world famous as the stage portrayer
of Sherlock Holmes, William Gillette sailed down the Connecticut River and
past a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. He docked at the southernmost hill, clambered up to a viewpoint and knew he had found his retirement spot.
The actor and playwright designed his castle and its interior himself and over the next six years a team of laborers crafted Gillette’s 24-room vision of native fieldstone in the style of a Norman fortress. Gillette, son of a former United States Senator and direct descendant of Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford, would tinker with his masterpiece until his death in 1937. Childless and a widower for half-a-century, Gillette’s will protected the property against any “blithering saphead” who might destroy his creation and the State of Connecticut became its steward in 1943.
The pride and joy of William Gillette’s 184-acre estate was his three-mile
narrow gauge railroad that looped through the woods below the castle. Gillette decorated the route with fanciful bridges, a wooden trestle and an arched tunnel blasted through bedrock. The rails are gone but the bed makes a unique pathway for your dog’s travels through the park. The terrain is hilly enough that your dog might wish he could hop a ride on that train but most of the grades work around the hillsides rather than using harsh vertical climbs.
Dogs are not allowed inside the castle walls but the trail does lead to Grand
Central Station where you will be able to see Gillette’s unique home. If you get a chance to tour the castle pay attention to the forty-seven doors, no two of which are exactly alike. Each door is adorned with an intricate, hand-carved puzzlelatch.
Fonthill is the home of Henry Chapman Mercer, noted anthropologist, antiquarian, artist, writer, and tile-maker and a leader in the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement in America. The mansion, designed by Mercer in 1908 with 44 rooms illuminated by over 200 windows, is an early example of poured-in-place concrete construction. Mercer built in concrete to avoid the fate of an aunt’s priceless collection of medieval armor that was destroyed in a fire. Fonthill defies any architectural description and is referred to simply as “the Castle.” Mercer also built two other concrete structures in Doylestown; the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works on the same property and the Mercer Museum across town. Dogs are welcome to roam the park-like grounds that include large swaths of open grass areas and wide dirt trails that crisscross the woodlands. There is about an hour of pleasant dog-walking here. Look for some of Mercer’s decorative tiles embedded in the concrete bridges over the estate’s streams.
Hartwood Acres (Pennsylvania)
William Flinn’s family left Manchester, England for Pittsburgh’s Sixth Ward
in 1852 when he was barely one year old. Young William left the Pittsburgh public schools at the age of nine to work the city streets. His father had been a small contractor but William eyed building on a larger scale. Mixing in Republican politics, Flinn won much of the paving and construction business in Pittsburgh during the exploding industrial times of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Flinn’s daughter Mary used her inheritance to create one of the western Pennsylvania’s most magnificent country estates, pivoting around an elegant 16th century Tudor manor house. In 1969, she offered the estate to Allegheny County as a park and just like that the county had a ready-made crown jewel in its park system.
When you bring your dog to Hartwood Acres, you come to walk. There are
no recreation or sport facilities on its 629 acres. The manor house, stable and outdoor sculptures are still in place to admire before heading out on the rolling dirt and paved pathways through the wooded countryside. A spiderweb of short and long trails and immaculate bridle paths conspire to provide delightful canine hiking in Hartwood Acres. You can hike with your dog here every day for a month and never take the same route. For lovers of sunshine begin your dog’s day in the Middle Run Lot and enjoy the macadam paths through manicured fields around the Stage, a concert amphitheater. You’ll leave most of the trail users (many with a dog in tow) behind if you slip off the main paved paths onto the whimsically named natural trails. The Heebie Jeebie Trail utilizes tight switchbacks to climb a short hill. The Perfectly Good Trail is just that - a shady circuit in a remote corner of the park through a junkyard of fallen hemlock trees. Hartwood Acres also offers a large, fenced-in grassy off-leash area for your dog.
Vanderbilt Mansion (New York)
Yet another country estate created for the Vanderbilt family, this one sited on the Hudson River for Frederick William Vanderbilt. Designed in 1898 by America’s foremost architects of the Gilded Age, McKim, Mead & White, the 54-room castle is considered a perfect example of the Beaux-Arts architecture style. The Vanderbilt Mansion is maintained today as a National Historic Site by the National Park Service, which doesn’t often get entangled in the estates of America’s fabulously wealthy. In fact the NPS takes pains to note that the “site was established as a monument to an era rather than a tribute to any one person or family.”
The connection to the Federal government here is neighbor Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose lifelong home Springwood is also a National Historic Site. Roosevelt encouraged Vanderbilt’s niece to donate the property to the National Park Service. Your dog won’t care about all that when she gets a chance to frolic on the manicured Vanderbilt estate grounds which are open free of charge every day of the year from sunrise to sunset. The 211 acres of parkland boast tree plantings back to the 1800s and tail-wagging views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. The Hyde Park Trail leads down the river to Springwood, a more modest affair that also includes The Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library. Roosevelt planted 470,000 trees on his property which your dog can appreciate in boulder-laced Cove Trail Woods.
The Hyde Park Trail also leads to a nearby third National Historic Site and
the only one dedicated to a First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill Cottage retreat. If this outstanding troika is not enough to sate your dog’s trail urges, the tiny town of Hyde Park also sports a nature preserve and twin parks behind the village center on both sides of East Market Street.
Hearst Castle (California)
One shouldn’t abandon America’s castles without mention of the hilltop
palace of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, perhaps the most famous American castle of them all. Dogs are not allowed at Hearst Castle, located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But there plenty of public beaches that allow dogs and several local businesses aware of the ban on pets have sprung up to take care of travelers just like you should you care to visit Heart Castle sans best friend.
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